The Passing of Peter Lawford Rekindles Memories of the Joys and Sadness of a Camelot Lost

updated 01/14/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Perhaps he was never the actor he could have been; none of his many film performances will ever be considered classic. But with his suave good looks, his quick wit and almost careless British charm, Peter Lawford always seemed more interested in just having fun. For years he reigned among Hollywood's elite, a pivot around whom legends revolved. He was the first to kiss Elizabeth Taylor passionately on camera, the last to speak to Marilyn Monroe.

For a time he was—as the husband of Patricia Kennedy and brother-in-law of the President—the link between America's political and showbiz power centers, equally comfortable in the social swirl of the Kennedy clan in Palm Beach or the Sinatra clique in Palm Springs. But when the Camelot era ended with Kennedy's assassination, Lawford went into a personal tailspin. His marriage to Patricia Kennedy ended in divorce, as did his next trip to the altar. Another marriage was annulled. His career gradually dwindled into insignificance. In his twilight years he became increasingly reclusive, and he drank heavily.

A year ago, after his longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor checked in to the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Lawford decided to follow. "Elizabeth going in there really woke up the joint and made a lot of people, like me, realize they had a problem," he said at the time.

He was convinced that his stay at the center "saved my life," though about five months later he entered the UCLA Medical Center where tests revealed he had a bleeding duodenal ulcer. Told that an immediate operation was imperative, he insisted that the doctors wait until he could take Patricia Seaton as his fourth wife in a hospital bedside wedding ceremony.

Briefly, Lawford's spirits revived. "I have even put on some weight after the operation, and I feel great," he told friends. "Nothing like getting zippered right after the wedding." But he wasn't acting, and the newlyweds had trouble paying the rent on their apartment. Once again Taylor tried to help. She got Peter a cameo in her CBS TV film, Malice in Wonderland. The pay was only about $2,000 for two days' work, but it might have been the start on the road back. "I will show them I can still do it!" Lawford exclaimed.

His first day on the set was to be December 14, but a couple of days before that, his wife found him drinking vodka and smoking a joint. "He seemed terrified of going in front of the cameras," Pat said. "I kept telling him he was killing himself." In desperation she checked him into Cedars-Sinai, where he was given a blood transfusion and vitamin shots. On the appointed day, Pat got him to the Malice set, but he couldn't manage his lines and stumbled around the stage. Lawford returned to Cedars-Sinai suffering from liver and kidney problems. He slipped into a coma on December 19 and died Christmas Eve. He was 61.

In retrospect, the pattern of his life seems always to have been a blend of random luck interwoven with personal hurts and disappointments. London-born, he was the only son of Lt. Gen. Sir Sidney and Lady May Lawford. After his father's retirement his family took to globe-trotting, and Peter wound up in Los Angeles. "My mother was very keen that I meet the right people, and getting into movies seemed a logical way," he explained. At 15, he landed his first Hollywood part in the 1938 film Lord Jeff.

Lawford's first leading role was opposite a pampered collie in the 1945 Son of Lassie ("He did not like me"). But he later gained a man-about-town reputation, at 22, with a torrid romance with Lana Turner, then 25. In 1947 he was cast in Julia Misbehaves with 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who later publicly acknowledged that Lawford was her first crush. At the time, however, he kept his romantic inclinations "in check, although Elizabeth made that very hard. The chemistry was always there between us. One night of passion might have sacrificed the incredible friendship we still have," Lawford reflected later. "I must confess, though, when I think about it I still kick myself."

Lawford became a member of Frank Sinatra's "Clan," whose charter members also included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. (They later became known as "the Rat Pack.") For years they caroused together, appearing jointly on the Las Vegas stage and performing ensemble in films (most notably Ocean's 11). On his own Lawford added to his visibility by playing Nick Charles, the urbane sleuth in The Thin Man TV series.

More glittering still was his Kennedy alliance through his 1954 marriage to Pat Kennedy, sister to Jack, Bobby and Teddy. Peter admitted that his love for Pat was not instantaneous but "one that grew over a couple of years of running into her at different places." His proposal occurred during one romantic dinner when he casually suggested, "One day I would like to marry you." To his surprise, she replied, "How about April?" And April it was.

Lawford became a U.S. citizen in 1960, in time to vote for JFK, who savored Peter as pal, traveling companion and frequent guest at the White House. Lawford organized the famous 1962 Madison Square Garden gala for JFK, in which mutual friend Marilyn Monroe swiveled onstage to croon, "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."

But those bright, shining moments did not last. In 1961 the Lawford-Sinatra friendship turned hostile. According to Lawford, Frank had expected to host the President on a Palm Springs visit, but because Attorney General Robert Kennedy was investigating organized crime including, said Lawford, a figure known to Sinatra, the White House felt it unwise to accept Sinatra's invitation. Lawford believed he was unfairly blamed for what Sinatra considered a snub, and the two never spoke again. Last year Lawford sent an olive-branch message, "but Frank never even acknowledged that he got the letter," Peter told a friend privately, suddenly bursting into tears. (Last week, in a statement issued by his publicist, Sinatra said, "I am deeply saddened by Peter Lawford's death.")

Lawford blamed himself for Marilyn Monroe's death from a barbiturate overdose in 1962. On the night of her death she had been scheduled to join him and friends for a supper-and-poker party at his Santa Monica house but called to beg off. On the phone Lawford sensed that something was wrong but failed to act in time. "If I had gone straight to her home and walked her around, I am sure she would have been okay," he later insisted.

Lawford's marriage to Pat Kennedy ended in divorce in 1966, but they had been separated for more than a year by then. (There are four children, Chris, now 29, Sydney, 28, Victoria, 26, and Robin, 23.) Again, Lawford accepted blame, admitting to extramarital affairs. He remained, however, on good terms with the Kennedys. In fact, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, after winning the California primary in 1968, was headed for a Lawford-hosted party when he, too, was killed by an assassin's bullets.

Lawford's personal and professional instability grew from that time on. There would be character roles in such films as The Longest Day and Advise and Consent and guest shots on TV, but he was painfully aware that he was an actor fading out. He married three more times, always to much younger women. His 1971 union with Mary Rowan, daughter of Laugh-In comedian Dan Rowan, lasted just eight months; his 1975 marriage to Deborah Gould lasted but two months. In his last years he found a measure of happiness in Pat Seaton, whom he had met at Hugh Hefner's and known for nine years. "Despite everything," Lawford maintained, "I have few regrets. I have crammed a lot of living into my time."

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